Mr. Chairman of the Commission, dear Laurent Lafon,
Rapporteur, dear Béatrice Gosselin,
Ladies and gentlemen senators,
Eighty years ago, in Europe, the Nazi power and the authorities of collaboration confiscated from the Jews their property before attacking their lives, or forcing them into hiding, into exile.
Eighty years ago, in France itself, it was decided that Jewish possessions could be taken away from them. Souvenirs, everyday objects, books… Hundreds of thousands of stolen and looted property could not be found and returned.
Works and works of art have not escaped this destiny. First by the hand of Nazi Germany, then with the active complicity of the French State. Through its General Commission for Jewish Affairs, art galleries have been «Aryanised», the property of professionals and individuals has been stolen. In other cases, persecuted families had no choice but to flee by selling their property under duress to finance their survival or forced exile.
Behind each work is a family history.
Behind every plunder is a human tragedy.
With each restitution, an act of justice is rendered.
We must continue to trace this path of justice, while the last witnesses of the Holocaust are still with us, longer, and anti-Semitism still does not belong to the past.
In 1995, President Chirac’s speech at the Vélodrome d'Hiver acknowledged France’s complicity in the deportation and murder of French Jews during the Nazi occupation of the country.
In 1997, the Mattéoli mission unveiled the long-forgotten subject of the dispossession of the Jews of France, by counting the divested assets in banks and insurance companies, and by drawing up a balance sheet of the works still plundered from the custody of national museums. This research made it possible to recall that the dispossession contributed to the horror of the genocide since it proceeded with the same desire to deprive the victims of their individuality.
I would like to mention some of their names.
Hugo Simon and Gertrud Simon, forced to leave behind their belongings to flee to Brazil, far from the entire existence they had rebuilt, after their first exile from Germany in 1933.
80 years later, when their great-grandson Rafael Cardoso was given the picture Naked in a landscape of Max Pechstein, he said:
Our hope (...) is that this object will be used to tell the story of our forefathers and all those whom Europe has lost (…) in the name of the delusion of racial purity. We also hope that this restitution will pave a healthier way for relations between cultural institutions and families that have been robbed. The German word for repair, Wiedergutmachung, which literally means “making good again”, perfectly expresses the spirit of what we can achieve when we work together to repair the irreparable.”
Nora Stiasny, deported and murdered in 1942 with her mother, like her husband and son, who sold her belongings for next to nothing to false friends who betrayed her trust, but could not escape the tragic fate that awaits her. Last year, thanks to the law passed by Roselyne Bachelot, which was unanimously adopted by Parliament, we gave back to its beneficiaries Roses under trees », a painting by Gustav Klimt from which she had to part in an unsuccessful attempt to flee Austria in 1938, the year of the Anschluss.
Mathilde Javal, whose Parisian apartment was looted and whose property was then scattered. Although many of her assets were repatriated to France after the war, it was only more than 70 years later that she was linked to two of these paintings. Contacted by genealogists, one of their rights holders, Marion Bursaux, discovered in 2018 these paintings and through them the memory of a family she had always sought. It is by contemplating this still life together at the Louvre Museum that the descendants of Adolphe and Mathilde Javal met for the first time.
Gertrud and Hugo Simon, Nora Stiasny, Mathilde Javal… And all those names, all those destinies that remain anonymous today.
These fates, we must continue to search for traces. This means conducting the necessary investigations into public collections where this unjustly plundered heritage is often overlooked.
It is estimated that at least 100,000 works of art and musical instruments were stolen from Jews in France alone, alongside millions of books. While many were returned in the immediate post-war period, others did not find their rightful owners, some went from hand to hand, until they found themselves in the national collections.
To Aryanise, to plunder, to plunder the cultural goods of the Jews, was to try to erase not only the beings that one breaks but also their heritage that one steals, their history, their individuality, their posterity. Reduce them to a number without voice, without baggage, without rights.
Nothing can bring them back, nothing can reverse the course of history.
But we can make possible the restitution of their cultural property to their families, to their rights holders.
We owe it to the victims of yesterday and to their heirs of today: to give them back a fragment of family history, so that what is right is no longer an endless legislative battle, but a right.
The task is immense, arduous. Because the plunderers are also concealers. Unraveling this web of false pretenses, dispelling the simulacra that has been forged to mask the origin of a stolen work, requires not only intense determination, but also the mobilization of a wealth of information, knowledge of great complexity to determine the cases of forced sales, suspicious exchanges, seizures, plundering «of aryanisation», to succeed in tracing the tortuous route of these works.
What the legislator will allow today is the historian who built it.
In recent decades, numerous studies conducted in Europe, and especially in France and Germany, have uncovered, digitized and shared sources of archives that make it possible to fight against forgetting. No one can now ignore these resources.
I want to commend in this chamber the work of Corinne Bouchoux, senator for Maine-et-Loire, who, with her report on Les œuvres culturelles spoliés, made proposals in 2013 to relaunch the investigative work.
On the occasion of the commemoration of the Vel d'Hiv round-up in 2018, the Prime Minister pledged to “do better” in research and restitution of art stolen from Jewish families.
To this end, in 2019, we created the Mission de Recherche et de Restitutions des biens culturel spoliés between 1933 and 1945, within the Ministry of Culture, to pilot and animate this public policy of research, repair and memory. I would like to personally thank David Zivie and his team, whose expertise and commitment to museums help us do better.
For a long time, these researches focused on works recovered by the allies and which, despite many efforts, could not be returned to unknown owners. They were signed and inventoried MNR for «Musée Nationaux Récupération», and entrusted to the custody of museums awaiting their rightful owner. These works, when they are stolen, can be returned by right, without specific legislation, because they have never entered our public collections.
But since the creation of the Mission for the Search and Restitution of Looted Cultural Property, the research has been extended to other types of works, legally entered into the collections, sometimes many years or even decades after the war.
In two out of three cases today, it is at the initiative of the Ministry of Culture that the stolen works are identified and returned to the descendants.
These reports have forged a link between the researchers and experts of yesterday and today. I think with emotion of the heroic Rose Valland who, as a «volunteer attaché» at the Jeu de Paume museum, clandestinely inventoried the stolen works that were stored there during the Occupation.
Today, it is a new generation of historians who are resolutely engaged in the research of provenance. Because it is now a question of appraising the collections on a completely different scale, and of detecting the doubtful origins among the works entered in the public collections since 1933.
This project, art professionals are now ready to lead it and the Ministry of Culture continues to encourage it. These concerns are now reflected in the initial training of conservators and auctioneers at the Ecole du Louvre, the National Heritage Institute, and since 2022, in a diploma from Paris Nanterre University specializing in “Provenance Research”.
However, when these long and difficult researches succeed, when a stolen work is identified as such in the public collections, when the owners have been identified, when all parties agree on the principle of restitution, it remains impossible to restore it without passing through a specific law to derogate from the principle of inalienability of public collections. However, this legislation can only take place after a certain amount of time, after a necessarily long legislative process.
Let’s take an example: that of Georges Bernheim, this gallery owner from before the war, wonderful discoverer of the great modern artists, whose property was stolen during the Occupation. In 2018, one of his stolen paintings was found in the collections of the Utrillo-Valadon Museum in the city of Sannois. All stakeholders agreed to return it: the city of Sannois, which owned it, the CIVS (the Commission for the Compensation of Victims of Dispossession Arising from Anti-Semitic Legislation During the Occupation), the Ministry of Culture, rights holders, of course. But for the work to be restored, it took four years. 4 years for a species law introduced by Roselyne Bachelot, whose determination I want to commend, to be passed.
Today, in line with the proactive policy we have been pursuing for several years, we want this law to provide a clear and fair legal horizon for the restitution process. So that the stolen works held in the public collections can be returned without further delay, without losing years each time.
All public collections will be affected. Whether they are in national museums under the Ministry of Culture, in territorial museums, public non-military institutions that hold collections, or in libraries.
With this law, once after investigation, the spoliation has been recognized by the independent advisory board and by the public owner, whatever it may be, the restitution of the work will be done by right. For the State, a simple decree of the Prime Minister will suffice; for the communities, a decision of the deliberative body.
The advisory committee responsible for assessing the existence and circumstances of the plunder will be the Commission for the compensation of victims of plunder arising from the anti-Semitic legislation in force during the Occupation, the CVIS. The CIVS, which has proved its expertise and legitimacy since its creation, is in fact the specialized body for assessing the facts of spoliation. It examines the facts of theft, looting, “Aryanisation” as well as forced sales, and may recommend to the Prime Minister remedies if these facts constitute anti-Semitic dispossession.
If this law deals with the past of the goods already entered in the collections, it is therefore necessary for future acquisitions. When it is not possible to determine with certainty the trajectory of a work during the period 1933-1945, it should not enter a public collection.
Ladies and gentlemen senators,
This bill is the first, since the Liberation, that recognizes the specific spoliation suffered by the Jews, in France and everywhere, by Nazi Germany and the various authorities that have been linked to it.
In proposing to you today to add four articles to the Heritage Code, I therefore propose that you open a new chapter in our relationship with our history, in the sense of justice, in the sense of historical truth.
Under the impetus of the researchers and subject to the opinion of the CIVS, each cultural property previously dispossessed and subsequently entered into the public collections may be returned to the rights holders of its original owner thanks to this framework law.
We extend the jurisdiction of the CIVS to deal with cases of anti-Semitic dispossession occurring between January 30, 1933 and May 8, 1945, and not just during the Occupation, regardless of the place of dispossession, because even stolen abroad, spoofed works can be found today in a French public collection.
This is now the scope of this new ambition, which commits and obliges us.
The year of the Mattéoli mission, in 1997, Patrick Modiano wrote in Dora Bruder :
' It takes a long time for what has been erased to reappear in the light. There are traces left in records and it is not known where they are hidden and which guards are watching over them and whether these guards will consent to show them to you. Or perhaps they simply forgot that these records existed. (…) In writing this book, I make calls, like beacons that I unfortunately doubt they can illuminate at night. »
Researchers, historians, associations, descendants of families, genealogists, elected representatives: many of them heard these calls and helped us to illuminate the night.
Nothing can undo the tragedy of the Shoah. Nothing can restore to families the objects of daily life massively plundered and plundered, which it is materially impossible to return to men, women, children that the French State has delivered in collaboration with the Nazi regime. But it is our responsibility to do everything in our power to oppose justice to cruelty, cynicism and ignominy.
This path of justice was opened by the resistance, in the maquis, in London, in North Africa, but also in our museums. Opened by Rose Valland, opened by all those who fought to make restitution possible.
With this legislation, we are honouring and honouring their commitment.